Who are the Widows of Nain?

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Her name was Babatha, she lived during the first part of the second century in what was then the southern part of Palestine. As was expected of women of her day, she married young, and bore a son. Soon after her son was born, her husband died and like other women of her day, she had to live on the mercy of her family. But she was fortunate, soon after her husband’s death, she remarried, only to be widowed again.
Based on archeological record, Babatha and her son were victims of the early second century Jewish uprising the Masada is popularly known for. In the caves not far from the wadi the Masada sits on, Babatha and her son hid from the Roman Legions. What was presumed to be a safe place, became their prison as the Roman Army dropped camp on the grounds below, literally cutting off all who lived in the caves and Masada from food and vital supplies.
Some 2000 years later, archeologists found Babatha’s personal papers. Her records indicate Babatha was a woman of great business acumen and, at least on paper, a wealthy woman. Because, among her personal effects were court documents indicating her late husband had left her and her son well over 400 denarii, but because she was a woman, she had no right to property, and her inheritance was managed by two male trustees. In her letter to the court, she asked for control over her finances. She argued the six per cent interest she was receiving off the estate was well below the typical twelve per cent, and if placed in her command she could easily gross eighteen per cent annually. It is unlikely her request was ever granted.
As we listened to our readings from both 1st Kings and Luke, we heard of women in the same position as Babatha. Presumably young, raising children and widowed with no rights and no socially acceptable means to support themselves. Both were dependent on the mercy and care of extended family and the future earnings of their dependent, first born sons.
In this morning’s gospel, we heard the wails of the widow of Nain as she followed behind her son’s funeral bier. Her cries of despair are not uncommon for many of us, who here has not either lost a child or journeyed with someone who has. As the Rabbi at my 10 year old cousin’s funeral said in his homily, there is no grief greater than that of losing a child. But the widow of Nain’s grief goes even deeper than ours. She not only grieved the loss of a child, but the loss of her future, as well as the loss of any position within her community. Without her son, without family, she was now no one, a faceless woman in the crowd and whatever property she may have had was now to be confiscated and controlled by others.
I would be surprised if any of us are surprised by Jesus compassion for the widow of Nain. After all, very few would feel no compassion for someone who grieves so deeply. And, Jesus compassion is consistent with the compassion he felt for Mary and Martha when they grieved for their brother Lazarus. And his acts of raising both Lazarus and the widow’s son provide for these women the same benefits that healing the blind, the deaf and those with leprosy had for those individuals. In every case, people were made whole, removed from the margins of society and allowed to return to, or become part of, the mainstream of their society.
Jesus healing ministry was all about restoration. With every healing, those who were once seen as less than whole, most tainted by sin and unable provide for oneself, are now able to be seen as whole by their communities and in the eyes of God. Also, with every act of healing contained in the Gospels, we are given a powerful illustration of what the Reign of God is like as each healing tells us that within the context of the Reign of God, no one lives in the margins, all are whole and worthy before God.
As I reflect on this morning’s readings, I have to ask if the widows of Nain and Zeraphath still live among us. Are there still women like Babatha today who are condemned to lives of poverty because the system works against them? The answer is yes. The only problem is, they look nothing like we expect them to. Most are not old with graying hair, instead they are young, many in their 20’s and 30’s. They are in many cases the single mothers who live among us.
There is no doubt over the past few decades the stigma of being a single mother has dissipated. This does not however mean that life is any easier. Statistics tell us single parent households make up the majority of households living near or at poverty. For the most part, most of these households are run by women. And these households are not necessarily run by women who had children out of wedlock.
Many of these families that live near or at poverty are run by women like my cousin. My cousin did everything right. She completed high school, did some college, got married and then had her son. It wasn’t long after her baby was born that it became clear her marriage was terribly wrong. My Aunt often complained of her son-in-laws attitude towards her daughter and in time it became clear he was both verbally and physically abusive. I am thankful my cousin had the fortitude and the support to get out of the marriage. But getting out of the marriage was not the end of her problems. Family courts now advocate as much for the rights of the father as they do for the mother, and so it was ordered that despite her family and support network being in Syracuse, she is confined to living within the greater Rochester area near where the father and his family live. And while the court afforded her child support and him a reasonable visitation schedule, it is not unusual for her ex-husband to pick and choose when he will visit or when he will pay child support. Often times this leaves my cousin scurrying to find day care so she can get to work and unable to pay her bills each month.
My cousin is lucky, at the time, she was trained as a LPN, she had family that could drop everything and drive the two hours to help her out when the baby got sick, and she had an understanding employer who assisted her in becoming a cardiac nurse practitioner.
My cousin is also fortunate she had family who could provide financial support when she needed it. Many others are not so lucky. Throughout the country, there are thousands of women who are confined by custody decrees to living within a restricted geographical area despite economic opportunity and family support. Many live lives of isolation and those with no outside support find themselves dependent on welfare.
It is sad that our politicians and media hold up the exception and vilify the norm when discussing the welfare system. Yes, there is a small percentage who are able to muster enough energy and support to work their way out of the system, and there are others at the opposite end of the spectrum who take advantage of the system. But in between, there is a vast number of women and families trapped by the system.
Did you know national statistics indicate individuals making 11,344 live at poverty level? Did you know that families of four making $22,133 dollars live at or below the poverty line? Are you aware, to be able to live free of in-kind government assistance an individual must make above 16,355 and a family of four must make above $30,986. The problem with today’s system is, as people begin earning just over the poverty line their benefits drop more rapidly in value than their income increases. The second problem is, very few people who have been on welfare for a long period of time have the necessaryskills to enter the job market above entry level.
Today most low skill entry level positions are in retail or direct service. Most of these jobs pay at minimum wage or just above with limited or with no benefits. A job starting at $9.00/hour …assuming it provides a forty hour work week provides an annual income before taxes and fica, of $14, 400, it is $965 below what is needed to meet the poverty line for a single individual. When you add in the lack of benefits for sick leave and/or the cost of health insurance, an entry level job for a single mother is not an option over staying on welfare.
I don’t think anyone will argue that our welfare system is broken, and at best, is in serious need of reform. But sadly our media and politicians find it more advantageous to vilify the victims of the system than to speak with compassion for the countless women who have fought to free themselves of being on welfare, only to be beaten back down so many times they have given up. Like the Widow of Nain, ,Zaraphath and Babatha, without family and others to support them, many single women have become the widows like them, stuck in a system that keeps them dependent and powerless. It is the single mother stuck in the welfare system, often through no fault of their own, who Jesus showed compassion for in today’s Gospel.
As the modern day disciples of Christ, we are called to be offer compassion, not judgment. We are called to recognize where the system is broken, and to creatively seek ways to fix it and to work towards bringing the Reign of God closer to reality.
Amen

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